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Do queer migrants from the Northeast find Indian cities alienating or empowering?

Photo of a man and a woman in front of a pride flag, with a glass-like filter on it.

Growing up as ‘effeminate’ boys or ‘tomboyish’ girls in the small towns of Northeast India was a traumatic experience for many of us. Those of us who didn’t fit into the categories of a ‘regular masculine boy’ or a ‘typical feminine girl’ were ridiculed and bullied. ‘Homo’ was the derogatory word that made us uncomfortable in our own skin and ashamed of our body. Though there are words in local dialects that signify queerness, such as maiki[1] in Assamese, and nupi-maanbi or nupi-saabi, nupa-maanbi or nupa-saabi among the Meitei speaking community of Manipur, ‘homo’ remains the word that is still widely used across Northeast India as an umbrella term to rather disrespectfully identify people who don’t conform to gender norms or have a ‘deviant’ sexual orientation – those who are transgender, gay, lesbian, etc.

Another word, ‘Chinky’, is an unfriendly term that marks ‘Northeasterners’ as a racial ‘other’ based on appearance. People from the Northeast are viewed as ethnically inferior, and exotic and erotic for their skin and hair colour and texture. For the rest of India, the Northeast conjures up an image of tribal cultures and people living in the jungle. ‘Chinky’ is a word that marks the fetishization of the Northeasterner’s body, and through this word the body becomes the ground of a political struggle of reclaiming and determining the dignity and integrity of Northeastern resistance. It becomes a symbol of the unification of Northeastern migrants with their homeland, as lack of opportunity, political unrest, and stigma compels Northeastern youth to pursue higher studies and careers in cities outside the region. ‘Chinky’ is a slur that often incites a sense of pride in one’s own skin and stirs up a sense of collective resistance and retaliation. Nevertheless, slurs remain a big hurdle in our journey towards our ambitions, aspirations and preferred way of life.

A person living at the cusp or intersection of both subjectivities (being queer and being from the Northeast) experiences a constant state of anxiety over the quest for self-determination and a sense of belonging. In the last decade, the migration of people from the Northeast to other Indian cities has been rapidly increasing. These cities have become a gateway to financial and professional security and success. Besides every other struggle that any city migrant goes through, racial discrimination also comes as part of the package. Systemic discrimination against Northeastern people can even be called a widespread crisis. Reports of violence against Northeastern people are still quite common. The experience of discrimination in these cities has become a collective narrative that has found its way into newspaper articles, debates on news channels, and in the courts, so that now, someone can be jailed for uttering the word ‘Chinky’.

A major question for a Northeast Indian who migrates to an Indian city is, “Do you feel at home?” And it’s not a surprise when the majority state that they don’t feel at home, citing the difference in language, culture, and food habits and the prevalence of racial discrimination and violence, among others. On the other hand, urban spaces often denote better prospects for queers and the opportunity for a more fulfilling life – the promise of less harassment and fewer prying questions. As such, many migrants from the Northeast are queers. A bigger city has more options and opportunity for livelihood, a bigger market for any acquired skills, and, as mentioned before, a chance to fully express our choices and desire under the garb of anonymity. Another aspect of living in a bigger city is the existence of a visible queer movement and avenues for community building and networking. In short, cities offer an escape from the feeling of alienation from one’s own kin and region.

In the case of a Northeastern queer migrating to another Indian city for opportunities and livelihood, the racial othering, cultural subordination, and the eroticisation and exoticisation of the Northeastern body represents a curious case where it is rather tricky to draw a line between alienation and celebration. Often, reclaiming the desirability quotient and the exoticised versions of Northeastern people’s bodies that are fetishized as an object of fantasy becomes the most obvious and primary ground for the process of self assertion and determination, but it doesn’t signify a divergence from the narrative of Chinky. In any case, the victimhood remains. By victimhood we mean a certain loss of power and not being able to represent and influence public opinion of oneself and one’s own community. Therein lies the complex case of the Chinky homo. Your body may be sexualised and glamorised and in the process you may become an alluring and covetable object, but this can be problematic as well. Being a Chinky and a homo inhabiting a major Indian city is both racially alienating and threatening, and at the very least raises some pertinent questions. And the most intriguing question at the moment is: Does the Chinky homo feel alienated or empowered in these cities? To begin with, we must understand that the alienation will continue to remain until and unless the metropolitan cities become truly multicultural and inclusive of diverse races and communities. We are talking about a metropolitan city where momos would be viewed just as a food item and not as a cultural or regional marker accentuated with disrespect.

On the subject of cities and inclusivity, Smita Vanniyar rightly states, “When you don’t exist within the law, how do you claim public space anywhere? There is no law in the Indian Penal Code which protects a queer person from being thrown out of any public space. When you don’t have a space at all, how do you make it inclusive?” In fact, if the city is not inclusive how does one create a sense of belonging? If as a Northeastern queer you are always conscious that the law doesn’t protect you and you are racially differentiated and targeted by goons and others alike, how do you navigate the city? How do you walk through the dark narrow lanes of Old Delhi, or areas around New Delhi or North-east Delhi, or the railway stations in Delhi without feeling anxious and vulnerable? Or say, how would you feel if you were the only Northeasterner, and that too a queer, late at night in the parathe waali gali of Delhi while the dhabas carry on with their business, crowded with customers?

On the other hand, there exist pockets like Munirka, Humayunpur, Vijay Nagar, Indra Vihar, Maharani Bagh, Naraina, Kotla, and more where the market has a fair share of enterprises run by Northeastern people. These pockets are quite safe. Once, a building owner was seen shouting at a cop for regularly harassing one of his Northeastern tenants who runs a coffee shop. These are few of the paradoxes that a city like Delhi can present. The underprivileged are constantly huddled into specific areas, and in such pockets we are surprised to see a certain glimpse of multiculturalism and inclusivity. Northeastern people in general and Northeastern queer people are visible and are easily able to find themselves a home in such areas. Some have even started their business enterprises in these ethnic enclaves. However, it’s tricky to say that Northeastern people and Northeastern queer people in particular are also fully understood and accepted in these neighbourhoods. Maybe the tension shifts focus from racial difference, gender and sexual preference to questions of class. But, the question is: do these spaces liberate us from racial profiling based on our features? Or how much acceptance can money and class mobility really buy you within the already established social and cultural norms of a region? How accepted are we here, both racially and in terms of gender and sexual preferences? And do acceptance and tolerance necessarily mean liberation from being stereotyped? We feel that the othering never stops.

We just become a familiar or accepted other. Sometimes spending power might also pave a way for our differences to be celebrated by the locals who are at the receiving end of our expenses. This might make it easy for us to accept the differences that we have been marked with, but this “inclusivity” is still a form of racial profiling, even if it originates from empathy. This empathy often comes from a restrictive narrative of Northeastern victim hood. Without the opportunity to assert ourselves independently and through our own language and context, somehow we still remain an easy target of bullies, abuse, and threats. Moreover, the general Northeastern population that inhabits these “inclusive” pockets also still carries a sense of indifference towards homos, so these ethnic enclaves also reverberate the anxieties of being queer at home, to a certain extent. So, for a Chinky homo where does our next quest for an ultimate belonging, dignity, and integrity lie?

For the broader LGBTQ community, class mobility and participation in the “pink economy” (which is also yet another form of capitalist appropriation of the market for queers) is often seen as the ticket to inclusivity and acceptance. This creates a very judgmental space for those who are already deprived and have to struggle for their livelihood on a daily basis or those with limited earnings and options for livelihood. It is important to note that economic prosperity, class privilege, and better access to the cities’ exclusive spaces for the rich can give a false feeling of safety, power, and belonging, but class cannot be the solution to social inequality and injustice. Class itself is inequality and exploitation embodied. So, the narrative of freedom, power, and belonging bought through riches is not a viable option of trying to achieve inclusion in a metropolitan city. Money offers spaces that may seem accepting and tolerant, but in reality they exclude Northeastern people who been marginalised on the basis of class and income. On the other hand, the queer movement and its discourse on the intersections of class, caste, gender, sexuality, and race offers a space of belonging for ‘sexually deviant’ Northeasterners. But this sense of belonging is also not complete in itself. It is a fact that queer spaces are only accessible to a few among the many numbers of Northeastern queer people in Delhi. Often these spaces become alienating and isolating due to their keen focus on class aspirations and fixation on a meta-narrative of LGBTIQ struggles, in which there is a lack of representation and focus on the lived realities and anxieties of queer people from the Northeast.

Despite the existence of various pockets in which a Northeastern queer could possibly reclaim and celebrate their racial identity, our sexual orientation conjures an awkward indifference and discomfort within our kin. The limited resources that come to the Northeast as an underdeveloped part of the country makes our struggle in cities more challenging as class comes to the forefront along with sexual politics. The lack of networks for Northeastern queer people to discuss the above issues and the lack of representation and discourse in the queer movement further adds to our woes as we are left with no options but to carry and subsume the burden of our own bodies and the violence it invites. A few protests do erupt once in a while, but Northeastern queer people continue to live with the anxiety of racial profiling and double discrimination on the basis of their sexuality and gender identity. Their search for a home in their own country continues to be an alienating experience in both the regions they belong to and the cities where they live and work.


[1] Maiki is an Assamese word that literally means women, especially middle-aged women. However, it is used as a slang to ridicule ‘effeminate’ or weak men.

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